Category Archives: Science

All About the Brain

Explore the immensity of the human brain, its billions of neurons and trillions of connections, and the research that is helping us understand more about this complex and amazing organ.

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s popular lecture series returns with four new episodes each relating to the brain. The lectures are aimed at a middle and high school level and presented by LLNL scientists in collaboration with high school science teachers. This is a great opportunity to get a look at the cutting-edge science in a friendly and understandable way. Explore the immensity of the human brain, its billions of neurons and trillions of connections, and the research that is helping understand more about this amazing organ.

Browse more programs in Field Trip at the Lab: Science on Saturday.

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3D Printing with Stem Cells

Transplants are expensive and risky, and donor organs are in short supply. Researchers at UC San Diego are working on technology to change all of that. It’s called bioprinting. In simple terms, bioprinting is 3D printing with living tissue. Researcher Shaochen Chen has been perfecting the process in his lab for years.

Bioprinting is a complex process that takes place in a matter of seconds right before your eyes. Chen’s lab builds their own printing machines, which shine light into a gel the team has developed. Any spot the light hits becomes solid. Because the process uses light, it allows the team to recreate microscopic structures like liver cells or vascular networks with incredible precision.

While the process enables researchers to accurately reproduce biological structures, it’s what’s inside the gel that makes bioprinting truly remarkable. The gel can be filled with stem cells from a potential transplant recipient. Those cells can fuse with tissue in the body as the gel disintegrates, essentially repairing damage with the patient’s own cells. Chen’s lab has shown the process can work in rats with severe spinal cord injuries. Someday, the process could be used in humans to do the same.

Bioprinting is also helpful to researchers in other fields. Chen has teamed up with Alysson Muotri and Karl Wahlin to help them study the connection between the eye and the brain. Their labs are conducting research using organoids – tiny organ-like structures grown from stem cells. They realized in order to effectively study how brain and retinal organoids interact with one another, they need to physically separate them at just the right distance, similar to how they might be separated in the womb. Chen’s lab developed a bioprinted structure to achieve that separation, taking the partnership to the next level.

Watch — 3D Printing with Stem Cells – Shaochen Chen

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Brain-Powered Robot

It sounds like the plot of a science fiction movie. Scientists grow brains in a lab and use them to power robots. But, it’s really happening at UC San Diego – to a degree. Stem cell researcher Alysson Muotri has teamed up with a high school student for the groundbreaking project. It’s called the Neurobot, and it’s really cool.

It all started thanks to a high school student with a lot of talent and initiative. Christopher Caligiuri read about the work the Muotri lab was doing with brain organoids and wanted to get involved. He reached out and said he would love to help, and had some experience in robotics if that was useful. Muotri not only agreed, he put the sophomore on a pretty impressive project.

To understand how the Neurobot works, you have to understand the basics of the Muotri lab’s brain organoid research. Brain organoids are clusters of brain cells grown in the lab from human stem cells. They don’t contain every type of brain cell, nor do they have the all the various structures of full-fledged brains. They certainly aren’t capable of independent thought. But, they do give off electrical signals, similar to those of a developing fetus.

The team is using those signals to control the Neurobot. Researchers in the Muotri lab collect and record signal data from the organoids. That data is then fed into the robot through software Caligiuri developed. The software interprets the data as a speed commands, which control how fast the Neurobot walks. If you think it sounds cool, you have to see it in action.

Watch — Neurobot: Robotics Meets Stem Cells

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What is in the Air We Breathe?

“What we do in my group is we zoom in on the aerosols.”

Vicki Grassian and her team look at aerosols at a microscopic level to determine their impact on our health and our climate. Aerosols can be mineral dust and sea spray from the ocean or created by human activity or stem from any number of sources. They can travel across the globe impacting people, animals, and the planet in their wake.

Grassian’s work seeks to understand how aerosols and other gases not only affect us but how we might harness them for solar geoengineering.

Watch — What is in the Air We Breathe? – Exploring Ethics

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Glaciers and Sea Level Rise

Using helicopters, icebreakers, fishing vessels, and autonomous surface and underwater vehicles for over a decade, Fiammetta Straneo and her group have been probing the edge of massive calving glaciers in iceberg-choked fjords in Greenland to explore what is the Achille’s heel of glaciers – the marine edge where glaciers meet the sea.

Their goal? Collapsing ice shelves and calving of large icebergs in Greenland and Antarctica have recently become major drivers of sea level rise. The rapidity of these changes has come as a surprise, revealing major gaps in our understanding of how ice sheets respond to a changing climate. To a large extent, these gaps are due to a lack of measurements so Fiammetta and her group have probed in these polar environments to improve models of sea-level rise predictions.

Watch — Navigating the Perilous Waters at the Edge of Glaciers to Understand Sea Level Rise – 2019 Keeling Lecture

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